The Listener Who Made Talk Radio
By Gideon HaighMay 17, 2012
Talk, talk, talk radio. Studs Terkel listened. Now, 100 years since the Pulitzer Prize winner was born, people are still listening to him. A look at the life that informed the radio legend’s line of inquiry.
Studs Terkel was in a buoyant mood in the spring of 1963 when he welcomed Marlon Brando onto his popular Chicago radio program. He had just won the Prix Italia for his celebrated documentary of nuclear dread, Born to Live; he was shortly to record passengers on board the Freedom Train to Washington for a haunting voice montage, This Train. And notoriously taciturn Brando, promoting his new film The Ugly American, proved at first no more than averagely contrary ("I don't understand"; "I don't think that's true"; "I don't think it related to that at all"). But as Terkel continued gently to harry him, the interview took an unexpected turn.
"Now I want to ask you a question," Brando said abruptly. "You sit and ask many questions… You have an obligation to describe some of your feelings and point of view. What is it about a particular kind of work that interests you? Why are you preoccupied with these questions? What is the nature of your furrowing out this information from all manner of people? What kind of contribution does interviewing make to you?"
There was a pause. "This is a reversal," Terkel responded uneasily. "I don't know." He hemmed. He hawed. He was anxious, he said equivocally, not to be voyeuristic; he guessed he was simply curious about an artist's concept of art. Brando was unconvinced: "When I asked you simply to describe what you feel about your work, you became tense and concerned, perhaps a little confused, unsettled. When you ask me something, I could give you a glib answer, spieling. But if I want to answer the question honestly, I have to search my mind. When asked a simple question, it's not easy to give a simple answer."
The moment passed — Brando was too egotistical to pursue the inquiry, Terkel sufficiently adept to deflect it. But it was a rare moment in the storied career of perhaps the most admired chronicler of the last American century, when the spotlight was turned on him, when the biter was bit. On his death in October 2008, Terkel's fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama exalted him as a "national treasure"; The Independent deemed him "the world's greatest interviewer"; The Guardian claimed that "to register him as 'writer and broadcaster' would be like calling Louis Armstrong a 'trumpeter' or the Empire State Building an 'office block'." Yet despite his compilation of Working, Hard Times, The Good War, Race and other epics of national memory, Terkel successfully threw a thick cloak over his 'private domain' — ironic given how dedicatedly Terkel pursued untold stories and unheard voices. This week, Chicago marks the centenary of the birth of one of its most popular sons with a schedule of celebratory events, from showcasing some of the fruits of Terkel's 9,000 recorded interviews to rededicating a bridge named for him twenty years ago. So how might he have answered had Brando pressed him?
LOUIS TERKEL was born on 16 May 1912, the third son of Russian Jewish immigrants, tailor Samuel and steamstress Annie, inhabitants of a Bronx tenement. Theirs was an impecunious and eerily infirm household. Louis, regularly incapacitated by asthma and mastoiditis, shared a bed with his father, afflicted by chronic angina. He ascribed a lifelong love of music to its soothing properties when he was "bound to the hearth"; he would hear it wafting from other apartments, and from the gramophone his gentle, soft-spoken father purchased so he could listen to Caruso. "As I listened to that voice, my breathing came more easily," Terkel recalled of first hearing Verdi's Celeste Aida. "Caruso had succeeded where the doctors had failed."
Yet the predominant sounds of his boyhood were those of domestic discord. Terkel's mother, Annie, was a domineering figure with a waspish tongue, who, when Sam grew too infirm for regular work in August 1921, uprooted the family and dragged it to Chicago, where she leased two boarding hotels: first the Elite, perfectly ill-named, then the Wells-Grand, christened simply for the cross streets on which it sat. Terkel likened his mother to Eliza Gant, the implacable boarding hotel mistress in Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel (1929), whose first response to any claim of weakness or indisposition is a haughty "Pshaw!" but who is also prone to self-pitying lamentations: "Nobody knows what I've been through!" Terkel grew to regard Annie as the essence of deluded American striving — indefatigable, inconsolable, dedicated to her little fortune, unable to comprehend its cost.
Chicago instantly captivated Terkel. He loved reciting Carl Sandburg's famous 1916 poem: "Hog Butcher for the world / Tool-maker, Stacker of Wheat / Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler / Stormy, husky, brawling / City of the Big Shoulders…" He also grew fascinated by the city's reputation as a crucible of social struggle: the site of the Haymarket bombing, the setting of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, the location of the archetypal settlement house Hull House and the headquarters of Eugene Debs's International Workers of the World (aka the Wobblies). And in some respects, Terkel's politics never outgrew his formative encounters with that heritage. Wobblies were conspicuous among the Wells Grand's guests, their debates with the disciples of the demagogic right-wing radio propagandist Father Charles Coughlin reverberating through its thin walls: "Theirs was the American yawp. Every man a king. Every man a Demosthenes." Terkel also revelled in the soapbox oratory of nearby Washington Square Park, known to locals as Bughouse Square: "The stars of the square were representatives of the Socialist Party, the Communists, the vegetarians, and, of course, the moody Bible Institute orators. To tell you the truth, they outspoke in fervour, and certainly outsang, their Godless opponents." Terkel's earliest inspiration, and his abiding benchmark for political heroism, was Senator 'Fighting Bob' LaFollette, an anti-corporate progressive and anti-war isolationist.
Yet for all these romantic influences, young Terkel was not a young turk. He drifted into studying law without urgency or aptitude, narrowly passing the bar exam at second attempt; after applying unsuccessfully for a job as an FBI fingerprint analyst, he took low-level New Deal roles in the Federal Emergency Rehabilitation Administration and the Works Project Administration as "a tiny cog somewhere along the line in that vast machine". He affected the garb not of the provocateur or the proletarian but, in the city of Capone, that of the gangster: trench coat with upturned collar, grey fedora, gravelly voice, lounging menace. It was this that earned him his nickname, from James T. Farrell's fictional hoodlum Studs Lonigan: an elaborate affectation indeed, sickly Jewish law graduate identifying with a brawling, ghetto-Irish anti-Semite. His happiest times, in fact, came to involve pretending to be somebody else. He obtained work in radio serials specialising in roles as the tough-talking mobster; he gravitated to the genre of labour drama popularised by New York's Group Theatre.
Terkel's political thespianism began quite accidentally, when he attended a rehearsal of the first Chicago production of Cliff Odets's famous Waiting for Lefty, inspired by the 1934 taxi cab strike that had recently immobilised New York: a script was thrust into his hand when the actor cast as Joe did not turn up. And like Joe, who in the play is a reluctant radical, and like Odets, who admitted he "had never been near a strike in my life", Terkel was a sympathetic voyeur on the labour movement rather than an instant disciple. Cast in a production of Sinclair Lewis's famous anti-fascist polemic It Can't Happen Here as the brutal gauleiter Shad LeDue, his reaction was not to run off to read Marx or to join POUM, but to wonder about those who gravitated towards the likes of the America First Committee and the Silver Legion: "Who are the guys who join these kinds of groups? Who are the guys who become like him? Who are the ones who fix the lock on the door, who put the bulb in? … There are millions who, deep, deep down, feel disdained." As it happened, he had some personal insight into such sensations.
In the early 1990s, Terkel was interviewed at length by his English peer Tony Parker, best known for his searching interviews with soldiers, single mothers and long-term prison inmates. In his autobiographical writings, Terkel usually gave in to his raconteur's instincts. But Parker drew him painstakingly out, especially about the death of his father and the life of his mother.
It was 19-year-old Terkel who came upon Sam's body after a fatal heart attack, glasses askew, seemingly asleep. His father's health had always been precarious, but the loss was devastating. "I was riding the streetcar a few days later, sitting on my own," Terkel recalled. "Not thinking about him — then suddenly I did, and I burst into tears. Can you imagine that? I was helpless, uncontrollable, I had to get off the streetcar. I've never had a moment like that in my life, before or since." It may have been the realisation that he was abruptly alone with his increasingly embittered mother, who on the brink of the Wall Street crash had had the prescience to withdraw her hard-won savings from a doomed bank, only to reinvest them in the empire of a doomed utilities magnate; she hung on grimly to the Wells Grand before finally losing it in 1937, becoming what Terkel called a "cantankerous old woman, who almost, though never quite, caught the brass ring". They were never truly reconciled — an idea, Terkel confessed to Parker, that haunted him even as an octogenarian.
"Odd the way thoughts of her come floating to my mind for no reason. It's not because I see something or hear something that reminds me of her… I'm not conscious of thinking about anything, and then I find I am thinking, just in a generalised kind of way, you know what I mean, and it's about her… I'd like somehow to have come to know her better when I was older, know what I mean? To have been able to sit down and talk with her sometime and try to understand her… You have to understand this about people, don't you? For most of them, life's been a disappointment."
It is not that Terkel was unconsciously addressing his mother when he later "sat down and talked" with subjects; but there is a sense in which his belief in the therapeutic properties of talk to reconcile, rehabilitate and redeem "disappointment" was rooted in personal opportunities forgone. In his later work, he explained, he never sought out "types": "The individual is the key to everything." In his case, it had been.
IF ONE HALF of Terkel's story was about personal reticence, the other was about tactful embroidery, not all of it his own. On his death, many eulogists grouped Terkel with other victims of McCarthyism like Dalton Trumbo and Lillian Hellman. In truth, his politics were rather more veiled than those of the average proselytising liberal or fellow traveller. Although an avowed pacifist, Terkel did not identify as a conscientious objector during World War II. Although he hosted events for the Progressive Party's 1948 election campaign, Henry Wallace never quite replaced Robert LaFollette in his affections: at an alumni dinner of the University of Chicago's law school that Terkel attended before the 1960 election, a vote was taken on the next president: there were 44 notes for Kennedy, 41 for Nixon, and one for 'Fighting Bob'. Terkel's radio program The Wax Museum on WENR became notable for its promotion of black musicians such as Mahalia Jackson and Big Bill Broonzy, and when he and his social worker wife, Ida, became parents they named their son Paul for the singer and activist Paul Robeson. But when Robeson became a shill for Stalin, Terkel recoiled.
Between 1949 and 1952, Terkel hosted a warmly remembered NBC variety show, Studs' Place, an outstanding example of what has been called the "Chicago School of television", which eschewed scripts and elaborate scenarios in favour of a relaxed, intimate, naturalistic air. The conceit was that Terkel was the owner of a diner; musical guests breezed in and out; the atmosphere was warm, folksy and frankly apolitical; and he were ignored by the infamous Red Channels, the widely-read right-wing pamphlet on "Communist Influence in Radio and Television" that named 150 actors, writers, musicians, broadcast journalists and others as politically suspect. Although Terkel ascribed the cancellation of Studs' Place to NBC's misgivings about his ideological leanings, its homespun style was also at odds with the slick, homogenised variety shows rolling in from each coast by this time.
Soon after, a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a Chicago radio producer, came forward to claim that Terkel had many years earlier invited him to join the Communist Party. But Terkel was never subpoenaed and, according to James Thomas Baker, author of a 1992 monograph about Terkel's works, the broadcaster's main persecutor was not the malevolent Senator Joe but a single buffoonish American Legionaire, Ed Clamage, a florist who spread rumours of Terkel's liberal sympathies — unpleasant, but hardly the weight of a vicious police state.
"I'm confident they had a fairly rich dossier on me," Terkel said of the FBI, but the file when released proved to be mundane . In one memoir, Terkel self-dramatisingly quotes the slur of an FBI informant, a university professor: "Slovenly, didn't care much, a low-class Jew. He is not one of our type of boys." In fact, the informant was a tutor and not so astringent: "While it is true that Terkel worked diligently, I did not consider him any more than average. His appearance was somewhat sloppy, and I considered him to be not the best type of boy."
Above all, when Terkel found a home at radio station WFMT in 1952, he was embraced, and his radicalism proved to be of a subtler sort, as an abettor and amplifier of the voices of others, first of all in the long, sympathetic, well-informed and adeptly edited interviews on The Studs Terkel Show, destined to run for 45 years. Initially, Terkel spoke mainly with his favourite musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie; his evening sign-off was borrowed from Guthrie: "Take it easy, but take it." Gradually he widened his range to include writers, thinkers, directors and performing artists. Interestingly, he never interviewed politicians ("I don't have any of those"). But whether he was interviewing Leonard Bernstein, Simone de Beauvoir, Arthur Miller, John Kenneth Galbraith, Tennessee Williams, Andrés Segovia, Margaret Mead, Jacob Bronowski, Bertrand Russell, Birgit Nilsson or Bob Dylan, there was always an underlying democratic sensibility. The questions were simple but often acute; they sought answers for an intelligent but not an intellectual audience; they were based on exhaustive preparatory research: Terkel never referred to a book he had not read or a performance he had not seen. Unlike his famously relentless British counterpart John Freeman, Terkel sheered away from his guest's private lives, effectively issuing them a solicitous invitation to reflect on their work. With a jazzman's knack for improvisation, a bluesman's feel for trouble and a folk singer's ear for the vernacular, he flitted so lightly from subject to subject that the interviewee barely knew they were being drawn, although Margot Fonteyn can be heard at the end of a lively 1958 interview acknowledging Terkel's artfulness.
Terkel: Thank you very much indeed, Margot Fonteyn. Is there any last thing you'd like to say?
Fonteyn: Only thank you — and I'm glad I'm a dancer. And I think you're a dancer too.
Terkel: Well, maybe. At heart perhaps.
Fonteyn: Yes, yes. At heart you are.
Terkel's interviews obtained such a local following that virtually no creative identity visited Chicago without providing him an audience, and that WFMT began publishing transcripts in their program guide. But Terkel might have remained largely a regional identity had it not been for a brief vogue for the work of a Swedish lunar leftist Jan Myrdal, who just before the Cultural Revolution was permitted to spend a month in China, and obligingly provided a starry-eyed apologia for Maoism. Acclaim for the English translation of Report from a Chinese Village (1963) sent its publisher, Pantheon's Andre Schifflin, in search of a writer who could compile an equivalent text for everyday urban America.
Terkel found the village motif unsustainable, his town having no concentrated area where ethnic, racial and income groups met. On the contrary: Martin Luther King had just deemed Chicago "the north's most segregated city", where a black population of 800,000 laboured under "educational and cultural shackles that are as binding as those of a Georgia chain gang". "I think the people from Mississippi should come to Chicago and learn how to hate," said King. The only place that Terkel's 70 black, white and brindle interviewees mingled was between the covers of Division Street (1967) — the name of an actual Chicago street, now connected to Halsted Street by the Studs Terkel Bridge, but a title chosen for its symbolic resonance. For divided they proved to be: the small businessmen and the janitors, the advertising men and the nuns, the steel workers and the social workers, the spokesman for Young Americans for Freedom and the former American Nazi Party member. There is the anomie of a black ghetto teenager shortly to be shipped to Vietnam, and of a white house painter who thinks Hitler "wasn't all wrong". There is the loneliness of a friendless 60-year-old man living on oatmeal in a rooming house across the road from Chicago's Urban Progress Center, and of a mother of eight in a high-rise project without electricity. There is the shame and suffering of a closeted 35-year-old gay man living with his mother and of a relief clerk in a men's hostel still stricken by the memory of selling dirty postcards to working men while he was a boy. The assemblage, Terkel claimed, came together as randomly as the composition of pedestrian traffic.
"A tip from an acquaintance. A friend of a friend telling me of a friend or non-friend. A face, vaguely familiar, on the morning bus. An indignant phone call from a listener or a friendly one… I realised quite early in this adventure that interviews, conventionally conducted were meaningless. Conditioned clichés were certain to come. The question-and-answer technique may be of some value in determining favoured detergents, toothpastes and deodorants, but not in the discovery of men and women."
Division Street , then, was to Terkel more than a book: it was the first stirrings of a cause, the celebration of the "non-celebrated" to which he would dedicate himself the rest of his life, from Hard Times (1970), a compilation of interviews with survivors of the Great Depression, to Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (2001), a collection of reflections on death and dying, all brought together with a workaholic zeal. Never able to cope with his mother's disappointments, Terkel developed an untiring patience for those who felt similarly "disdained". "Listen," was his repeated admonition to aspiring interviewers. "If you do, people will talk. They'll always talk. Why? Because no-one has ever listened to them before in all their lives. Perhaps they've not even listened to themselves." Terkel listened his way to greatest prestige for the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War (1985), which humanised World War II as seldom before, from a gay marine describing Iwo Jima, to a Jewish social worker spying the Nazi high command in captivity at Nuremburg: "It was a group of well-dressed men, with brief cases, newspapers and magazines in their hand. You would think these were members of the board of directors of IBM prior to a meeting." The listening could be confronting indeed. Recently reprinted on its 20th anniversary, Race (1992) contains an interview with C. P. Ellis, formerly the Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, strewn with chilling vignettes: "When the news came over the radio that Martin Luther King was assassinated, I got on the telephone and begin to call other Klansmen... We just had a real party... Really rejoicin' 'cause the son of a bitch was dead."
Terkel listened no more raptly than for Working (1974), in which 124 interviewees reflected, unsparingly, on "what they do all day". Terkel detected little nobility in modern labour, dwelling on its monotony and degradation, while also marvelling at the energy, resilience, fortitude and humour of his subjects, from a burned-out former child prodigy seeking solitude by toiling as a nurseryman to an old steel worker whose priest son was leading campaigns against the pollution caused by his father's mill. A plastics manufacturer told Terkel that he was so in thrall to his work that he identified with his material: "I take the position that I'm the plastic and how would I travel through the machine and what would I see." And Working is itself a little masterpiece of plasticity, Terkel moulding and being moulded by the testimony of his subjects, collecting, condensing and juxtaposing them so that they almost seem to be involved in their own conversations, each interview subtly informing the next. A hard-pressed stewardess mourns: "Even if we're sad we're supposed to have a smile on our face." A bored model finds her work ridiculous: "They say: 'We want you to be sexy, coy, pert, but not too effervescent.'" A prostitute likes being her own boss: "As a bright, assertive woman, I had no power. As a cold, manipulative hustler, I had a lot." So does a woman advertising executive: "If you're in the business, you're in the business, the fucking business! You're a hustler." But an actor feels like a slave: "We're nothing but goddamn shills."
The scale of Terkel's oeuvre bespeaks more than intellectual engagement; for him, interviewing was profoundly personal. He identified with the nervousness of his subjects because he himself found the process traumatic. Just as he never learned to drive or to ride a bicycle, for example, Terkel suffered waves of panic about his tape recorders, even after he swapped a Sony cassette machine for his original reel-to-reel Uher: "I don't know how to open it, I don't know how to put in a cassette, which way up it goes, how to close the lid when it's in, which is the button to press to get it to start recording, which is the button to press to make it stop." He adapted by making these anxieties part of his shtick: "Would you be frightened of a little old guy who wants to tape record a conversation with you — and he can't even work his tape recorder?" Compulsion then got him through. "It's not just the tape recorder I can't switch off, it's me I can't switch off either," he confessed. "There's always some part of me that's outside, detached, observing." He told a story against himself of spending a whole day yarning with a New York fireman, who when they had finished taping invited him to share a meal; Terkel declined on grounds he had scheduled another interview. "Hey," said the fireman. "I've just shared my life story with you and you can't share spaghetti and a beer with me?" Although a chastened Terkel cancelled his second interview and stayed, such moments did not come naturally. While reflexively repelled by Nixon, he came to feel a peculiar kinship with the president on account of their shared "neo-Cartesian" obsession with tape recording: "I tape therefore I am."
On his centenary, Terkel is rather a sui generis figure: not quite a journalist, not quite an academic, not merely a broadcaster, not simply a historian, in sympathy with the left, but more from sentiment than intellect. Especially in later books, Terkel's formulae grew cruder, more cloying and more repetitive: conservative pundit Joshua Epstein's description of him as a "virtuecrat", placing "all virtue in a fictional common man", has some force. Yet that elusiveness says as much about the modern news media's forces of conformity, its institutionalised incuriosity, its drearily mechanical nature, its excitement about so much and care about so little. Terkel never lost his excitement at the thought that there was a world out there just waiting to be heard, and ready to be opened by the simplest of questions — and these, he well knew, were often the most challenging to answer.
Gideon Haigh’s new book The Office is out now, published by Miegunyah Press. Here he is talking about it.